Pilou, China: the myth of the 'Movius line'

Game-changing handaxe discovery.


Handaxes were a vital component of the Acheulian tool-kit (c.1.76-0.13 Ma). But many years ago, the Harvard archaeologist Hallam Movius drew attention to the apparent lack of Acheulian handaxes in East Asia. His observation took hold, to the point that it became referred to as the ‘Movius Line’; between the handaxe-blessed west and the axe-deprived east.


Why the lack of handaxes in the east? Various explanations were put forward, one of them pointing out at Bamboo and other organic substances were excellent raw material for tools of all kinds, even high rise scaffolding. Movius’s theory became established in the textbooks, largely because we knew very little about Stone Age archaeology in China and elsewhere. Now the tables have turned, as China’s complex Palaeolithic archaeology comes into focus, to the point that the Movius Line has been breached. Isolated handaxe finds have been long known, but never a dense concentration of them. The Piluo site in China’s Sichuan Province changes the narrative.


Piluo, discovered in 2020, lies on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau at an altitude of 3,750m above sea level, covers more than 1 square km, and contains handaxes. Seven layers have so far been identified, the handaxes from the upper layer dating to at least 130,000 years ago. Dates from the earlier layers are still being researched, as excavations are at a very early stage.


The tools are well fabricated, with edges and thin cross-sections. They would not be out of place in a European Acheulian site. Finding them at Piluo is not that surprising, since modern experiments have shown that handaxes are versatile, extremely effective tools both for butchering game and other purposes.


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Image: A replica of an Acheulian handaxe, such tools were thought not to exist in East Asia.

Credit: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez